Jockeys are the most underappreciated athletes in the world. First off, they cannot weigh more than 114 pounds and expect to have a job, which means they must be rigorous about maintaining their weight. These men are then given the task of riding 1500 pound animals that run 35 miles an hour (the next time you are going 35 mph in your car, imagine what it would be like to ride on the hood, if the hood had hundereds of moving parts and required you to constantly balance just to stay on board). Difficult enough if all alone, in a race they are among 5 to 15 other such animals over which they have no control, in extremely tight quarters. The physical risk of injury is massive, and not only is there no union, no health care plan, no contracts (guaranteed or otherwise) and no pension, but there is no salary earned unless they guide their horse to a 1st-4th place finish. Jockeys typically collect 10% of a horse's winnings in a race if they finish in the money.
These 3 earned a paycheck at Derby 131; 16 others did not
Win: Mike Smith, Giacomo
Place: Cornelio Velasquez, Closing Argument
Show: Jeremy Rose, Afleet Alex
To be at all successfull, they must posess the strength of a greco-roman wrestler, the balance of a gymnast on the beam, the hand-eye coordination of a race car driver, and the courage of a matador or gladiator. As I said, they are total & complete badasses.
Kent Desormeaux wins his 2nd Derby on Real Quiet (1998)
More from Laura Hillenbrand, who is a much better writer than I am:
"To pilot a rcehorse is to ride a half-ton catapult. It is without question one of the most formidable feats in sport. The extraordinary athleticism of the jockey is unparalelled: A study of the elements of athleticism conducted by Los Angeles exercise physiologists and physicians found that of all major sports competitors, jockeys may be, pound for pound, the best overall athletes. They have to be. To begin with, there are the demands on balance, coordination, and reflex. A horse's body is a constantly shifting topography, with a bobbing head and neck and roiling muscle over the shoulders, back and rump. On a running horse, a jockey does not sit in the saddle, he crouches over it, leaning all of his weight on his toes, which rest on the thin metal bases of the stirrups dangling about a foot from the horse's topline. When a horse is in full stride, the only parts of a jockey that are in continuous contact with the animal are the insides of the feet and ankles- everything else is balanced in midair... The center of balance is so narrow that if jockeys shift only slightly rearward, they will flip right off the back. If they tip more than a few inches forward, a fall is almost inevitable. A Thoroughbred's neck, while broad from top to bottom, is suprisingly narrow in width, like the body of a fish. Pitching up and down as the horse runs, it offers little for the jockey to grab to avoid plunging to the ground and under the horse's hooves...
...A jockey is no mere passenger in a racehorse. His role in bringing home winners is critical and demanding. First, jockeys must have an exquisitely fine sense of pace over each furlong, or eigth of a mile... Great jockeys have a freakish talent for gauging pace to within three fifths of a second of the actual time and, if asked, can reliably gallop a horse over a distance at precisely the clip requested...
...Requiring that its human competitors straddle erratic animals moving in dense groups at extremely high speed, race riding is frought with extreme danger... Serious insults to the body, the kind of shattering or crushing injury seen in high-speed auto wrecks, are an absolute certainty for every single jockey. Today the Jockey's Guild, which covers riders in the United States, receives an average of twenty-five hundred injury notifications per year, with two deaths and two and a half cases of paralysis... According to a study by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, each year the average jockey is injured three times and spends a total of eight weeks sidelined by injuries incurred on the track. Nearly one in five injuries is to the head or neck. A 1993 survey found that 13 percent of jockeys suffered concussions over a period of just four months."
- from Seabuscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand, pages 70-73